Monday, February 19, 2018

Women in Horror: Crossing Genres to Create Theme

February is Black History Month, which I'm happily observing this week by watching Lena Waithe's fabulous The Chi on Showtime; reading the time-travel classic Kindred, by Octavia Butler,  visiting the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum in Joshua Tree; and lining up for Black Panther.

February is also Women in Horror Month. I hadn't remembered that until today, because, well, it's been Women in Horror Year, now into Year Two of the horror.

But my name and books always pop up for Women in Horror month in my Twitter feed and on my Facebook page (like this review of Hunger Moon in Cemetery Dance) because that's where I started as an author, and did quite a lot of as a screenwriter before that. Being a woman in horror gained me some instant recognition, because there are so few of us writing if. In fact, I was just at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA this week, and the "Horror Vault" (a literal bank vault) consisted of shelves of male authors plus Anne Rice, whose books I love, but to my mind she's not really a horror writer at all.

And neither am I, any more, for many reasons.

There’s definitely a bias in the industry against female horror authors. It doesn’t affect me in a practical sense because I’ve moved into writing very dark thrillers rather than overt horror. I love both genres; I went back and forth between the two, or crossed the two, as a screenwriter –  and I’m a full-time writer, so I’m not about to struggle against a genre that disparages women AND doesn’t pay as well as the thriller genre.  

The Haunted thrillers, box set
Beyond that, I’d really rather not use the word “horror” to describe even my four supernatural novels because I think the genre has been brought to a very low, base level by torture porn. I find it disgusting and harmful. It doesn’t deserve to be listed with the true psychological horror of Jackson, Lovecraft, Shelley, King, Poe – the great explorers of the dark side. I don’t write torture porn and I won’t read or watch it, either.

But there's no question that part of my brand as an author is mixing elements of horror with crime. I started that with my witch thriller Book of Shadows, which crosses a police procedural with an exploration of modern witchcraft practice and the possibility of demonic possession and satanic murder.

But I really found my stride with the Huntress Moon series, which confronts the existential horror of sexual abuse, sexual assault and sex trafficking in a realistic FBI procedural. The collective evil of sexual predation and the laws and social systems that defend and perpetuate sexual abuse take on an almost supernatural presence in the books, without ever becoming overtly supernatural.

I use techniques I learned writing horror for both books and film to create that creeping sense of suspense and evil, and it gets readers turning pages ever though I'm writing blatantly social and political themes and confronting real legal deficiencies and institutional atrocities.

It's made the series quite successful as books and led to a TV deal, because this is just the kind of edgy boundary-pushing that is finally, finally popular in television now.

Using horror to explore social and political issues can be powerfully effective, as we saw last year in Jordan Peele's razor-sharp, game-changing Get Out.

And I just read Kindred, the classic, brilliant, brutal time travel/neo slave narrative novel by the Grande Dame of science fiction, Octavia Butler (my way of celebrating both Black History and Women in Horror at once).

Kindred takes its 1970's African American heroine, Dana, on a harrowing time trip back to the 1815 plantation where her ancestors were enslaved, and she must both survive the constant atrocities of the time, and guard her white plantation ancestor from harm in order to preserve her own family line.

Now that's horror - the horror of slavery that we've never healed as a nation, so evident in the racism which is rising up around and apparently in us again today. (People in my neighborhood got it delivered right to their doorsteps this week: racism not only in the headlines, but in the white supremacist flyers that someone had slipped into the newspapers).

And of course,  using horror to explore philosophical and political issues of the day goes back much, much farther than that. Consider Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein is being feted all over the world on its bicentennial anniversary. Her themes of the moral implications of scientific exploration and the failings of the patriarchy still resonate powerfully today.

So how about you authors out there? Have you ever considered using the conventions and sugarcoating of genre to deliver the themes that are most important to you?

And readers, do you have favorite genre-benders that carry a potent social or political or philosophical message?

 - Alex

All five books of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers are on sale: $2.00 through March 1 on Amazon US.
This really is a series that needs to be read in order, so this is a fabulous way to get started. 
Audiobook listeners - you can ad RC Bray's award-winning narration for $3.99 or under!

          Special Agent Matthew Roarke and mass killer Cara Lindstrom return - in 

                                        Book 5 of the Huntress/FBI Thrillers.

                                       College rapists better watch their backs.


                    Book 5: in print, ebook and audio. Buy here, 

In the new book, Roarke and his FBI team are forced to confront the new political reality when they are pressured to investigate a series of mysterious threats vowing death to college rapists... while deep in the Arizona wilderness, mass killer Cara Lindstrom is fighting a life-and-death battle of her own.

For thousands of years, women have been prey.

No more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Stealing Hollywood: Love Story Elements

How about a love story post for Valentine’s Day?

I spend a lot of time here and in my Stealing Hollywood  workshops breaking down story  elements that are applicable to any genre.
But there are other story element, just as important, that are specific to whatever genre or genres you’re writing in, and also elements that are specific to the KIND of story you’re writing.

                  Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

I really had that driven home for me as I was writing Writing Love (Screenwriting Tricks II). I made a master list of ten love stories in different subgenres (in this case not always my favorites, because I wanted to have a broad range of romantic stories for analysis and discussion) and broke them down in depth to find the key story elements specific to that umbrella genre. And oh, did it turn the lights on for me.

I’m going to share some of those with you now, because whether or not you write romance or romantic comedy, you’ll almost always have a love plot in your story, so it’s useful for writers of all genres to be aware of common love story elements.

The following are some scenes and setups that are very typical in romance and romantic comedy. You can do a similar list of specific elements for any genre, and I highly encourage you to do so — it’s another way to master your craft.

I’ve tried to focus mostly on plot points or premises instead of just gags or bits — that is, these are actual story elements that can help you build a story if you use them wisely. And these elements will often overlap with the key story elements we’ve been discussing: that is, the CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story might be a case of FATE INTERVENES; THE PLAN might be to PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED; THE HERO/INE’S GHOST might show up at the MIDPOINT and radically shift the dynamics of the story, and so on.

Now, any of these love story elements can be done badly and devolve into the worst kind of cliché. The point of knowing the common elements is to be aware they’ve been done before and find your own unique ways of using them, if you’re going to use them.

I’m not going to waste time on the clichés, for which there probably is no hope, ever, but here’s my own partial list of those clunkers, which I’m sure you can add to:

The hardboiled career woman who needs thawing
• The heroine working as a book or magazine editor (Really? Another one?)
The heroine loosening up in a drunk scene (and recently, promptly vomiting on the hero’s shoes)
The hero/ine spilling something on the love interest (truly vomit-inducing, usually a pathetic version of “meet cute”)
 The African American or gay best friend who has no other purpose in life but to support the hero/ine (and of course, show how wonderfully open-minded the hero/ine is)
The climactic race to the airport to stop the loved one from leaving (like there’s not another plane leaving in an hour or two?)

I’m already nauseated just making that much of a list, but you get the point. Let’s go on to some common elements that are much used, but still useful, used wisely.


In a love story, while the INCITING INCIDENT that starts off the story action may be a job offer, a wedding invitation, a mis-booked hotel room, or any other inciting incident common to any genre, the actual CALL TO ADVENTURE in a love story is very, very often that first look at the beloved. This is why so often that first look seems on the surface to be HATE AT FIRST SIGHT — it’s a variation on the RELUCTANT HERO/INE (or REFUSAL OF THE CALL). When we meet that true love, there’s often as much or more fear and panic involved as joy and relief. Life is never going to be the same, and we know it.


An example of MISAPPREHENSION, which is a form of MISTAKEN IDENTITY. Bridget Jones’ Diary, New in Town.


In a love story, the Ghost or Wound is most often related to love and attachment, obviously: the heroine’s parents died when she was a child (The Proposal), the hero’s father has had a succession of failed marriages (Made of Honor, You’ve Got Mail), the heroine’s father was always chasing rainbows, impoverishing the family (Leap Year).

The Ghost often comes out deep into the story in a confessional scene in which the hero/ine reveals to the love interest WHY I’M LIKE THIS (often at the MIDPOINT), but it’s generally better storytelling to dramatize it. For example, in You’ve Got Mail, when Tom Hanks’ father leaves his much younger wife and moves in with Tom in his temporary crash pad (boat), we see Tom realize he doesn’t want to be like his father and that he loves Meg (which in this story is THE ACT TWO CLIMAX/REVELATION into the FINAL BATTLE).


In Romancing the Stone, Joan needs Jack to take her out of the jungle and back to Cartagena; Jack needs Joan’s money because he’s just lost all the rare birds he was smuggling. In The Proposal, Margaret needs Andrew to pretend he’s married to her so she won’t be deported, and she threatens him with career annihilation if he refuses; Andrew agrees to do it if Margaret promotes him and publishes a book he loves.

In Leap Year, Anna needs Declan to take her to Dublin; Declan needs Anna’s money to save his pub from foreclosure. In What Happens in Vegas, a judge orders Cameron Diaz and Aston Kutcher to remain married for six months if they want to split the three million dollar casino payoff they won together. (This story beat is also often an OFFER S/HE CAN’T REFUSE.)

A common variation on Handcuffing the Couple Together is:


It’s amazing how often romantic comedy uses this device. Fate, very often in the form of the weather, prevents the hero/ine from leaving town (New in Town, Groundhog Day) or deposits them on the opposite side of the country from where they are supposed to be (Leap Year) so that the hero/ine can meet his or her true love.

This is especially well done in Groundhog Day, as I talk about at length in my breakdown of that classic film— I swear, those clouds are scheming.


A plot point that usually comes early in the first act: the hero/ine is locked into a situation because his/her boss or family or a judge gives them an ultimatum — e.g. in The Proposal, if Margaret does not fake a marriage with Andrew, she will be deported. Also see New in Town, Leap Year, What Happens in Vegas.


False identity was a staple for Shakespeare’s comedies, and is still widely used in romantic comedy, sometimes as a scene or sequence (pretending to be a sister or a fiancée), sometimes as the whole premise of the story: While You Were Sleeping, Tootsie.


I don’t have to explain this one, do I? It’s the first time the hero and heroine let down their respective guards and start to spill personal information. It’s very often done very badly, as an information dump.


A staple of romantic comedy; it can be a scene, as in Leap Year where Anna and Declan must pretend to be married in order to get a room for the night at a bed & breakfast owned by religiously conservative proprietors, or it can be the whole premise of the story: whether it’s to get an inheritance or some other large chunk of money (What Happens in Vegas), or get a green card (The Proposal, Green Card).


A different kind of scene, more spontaneous — in which the couple find themselves digging in a garden or working well together in a kitchen (Leap Year) or one of them talks the other off an emotional ledge (Sally gently calming Harry down after he explodes in front of their best friends in When Harry Met Sally), and we get a glimpse of the well-matched couple they would be.


A staple of all genres, often used very unconvincingly, so be careful. Some good examples: In Leap Year, Anna needs to get to Dublin by Leap Day to propose to her reluctant boyfriend. In The Proposal, Margaret and Andrew have four days to get to know each other well enough to convincingly pass themselves off as married to a suspicious INS agent. At the climax of When Harry Met Sally, Harry is desperate to get to a New Year’s Eve party in time to kiss Sally at the stroke of midnight, something he utterly failed to do the year before.


Can be a scene, or a whole premise, in which the hero/ine bets friends that s/he — usually he — can bed or dump a lover in a certain timeframe (How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days). Or some other bet that leads to a romantic entanglement (Pygmalion, My Fair Lady).


Sometimes the second time is the charm. Or not. Sweet Home Alabama, Philadelphia Story, It’s Complicated.


The idea that there is a magical day, or hour, or place, that will lead magically to true love and/or marriage. Leap Year has a heroine racing across Ireland in order to propose to her reluctant boyfriend on Leap Day, when traditionally men are obliged to accept any proposal they receive. Four Weddings and a Funeral plays with the idea that a wedding is a magical moment in time in which not only the bridal couple but anyone in attendance can find true love.


This is appallingly lacking in most love stories: some indicator of why we’re supposed to want this couple to get together to begin with. I know, love is a hard thing to define, but please, give us something! Some common explanations:

Opposites attract (Leap Year, Groundhog Day)
A shared passion (New in Town)
In a class by themselves (Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story)
They bring out each other’s best selves (Sense and Sensibility)
They make each other laugh
 They understand and support each other’s most cherished dreams (While You Were Sleeping, Sense and Sensibility)
          • They’re best friends (The Thin Man series)

I’m sure you can think of lots of others. In fact, why not spend a minute now and:


This is one of the most crucial scenes in any romance or romantic subplot, and one that goes a long way toward explaining WHY THEM? The Dance is a scene in which we see that two people are perfect for each other: they have the same rhythm, they work around each other’s flaws, they have the same passion, they complete each other. One of my favorites is the beautiful scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Edward and Elinor coax Elinor’s younger sister, Margaret, out from where she has been hiding under the library table by pretending ignorance of the source of the Nile. We see that Edward and Elinor are perfectly matched: both intelligent, witty, sensitive, kind, and off-the-wall. They are at their most charming when they’re together, and we are totally committed to the relationship by the end of the short scene. So much more meaningful than “Meet Cute”!

In fact, I’m going to end right there because THE DANCE is just that important to get right! How about it –

Can you identify THE DANCE in Notting Hill? In Groundhog Day? In The Proposal?

Even better, can you give me some examples of THE DANCE, maybe in your favorite romantic movie? Extra bonus points for Youtube links to clips!!

And have a wonderful, romantic day.

- Alex 


Want more? Get full story structure breakdowns of ten movies in each of my workbooks.


                     Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

                                            STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

                Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


My Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers is ON SALE, all five books $2.00 each. 

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer.
This time, the predators lose. 

Friday, February 09, 2018

Don't start a new book! Finish the old one!

-->by Alexandra Sokoloff                   

I recently did a Skype session with a writing group, and I started it as I always start a workshop, with these questions: 

     1.  The genre of your WIP (Work in Progress)
     2.  The premise of your book - the story in one or two sentences.  

     3  A list of TEN books and films (at least five films) in your genre that are somewhat similar to your book structurally.    

Just that bit of information on my audience or students helps me focus the session or class so that everyone gets the most out of our time together. And you know what I find over and over?

Very few people can tell me about their ONE book.

Because most of the participants have five, six, seven, even eight (I’m dying here…) book or story projects going at once.

Oh. My. God.

Over the years I have been astonished at how many people in my workshops have multiple projects in various stages of completion. It's not astonishing at all that most of these people remain unpublished. Because published authors are writers who suck it up and FINISH their books. They COMMIT. They deal with the reality of what they have written instead of the fantasy of what they thought they were writing. They develop the Teflon skin that allows them to put their work out there to be criticized—and yes, rejected. Lots of rejection.

                            Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

Some of these unfinished projects will never be good enough to be published. The unfortunate truth of writing is that you won't know that until you finish. But you have to become a writer who finishes what you start, even if you then have to throw a whole completed project away once in a while. That is part of the process of becoming a professional writer. You must figure out how to FINISH every book you write.

So here’s the takeaway.

     DON’T write a new book. FINISH the old one.

I am pretty sure that what most aspiring authors need to be doing is using the New Year, or Junowrimo, or Nanowrimo, wherever you are in the year, to FINISH an old book.

Part of that process is picking the right premise to begin with. But another critical part of that process is ramming your head into a concrete wall (metaphorically speaking) until you're battered and bloody but you finally figure out how to make that particular book work. Some books are just harder than others, but you must demonstrate to the Universe that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make ANY book work. It's a trust thing. Your books must trust you to fully commit to them.

And that time is NEVER wasted, even if you never make money off that book. It is professional and more importantly - CREATIVE development.

I have a book hidden in my files in the Cloud that I could be making quite a lot of money on if I just self-published it, or even had my agent go for a traditional publishing deal on it. People would buy it and a lot of readers would enjoy it. One of my trusted Beta readers says it’s her favorite of all my books.

I know all that.

But for me - it's not as good as the rest of my books and I don't want it out there. It just doesn’t have the theme, the MEANING I want in my books.

I finished it, evaluated it—and then put it away and wrote another.

That was a big gap in my publishing schedule, let me tell you. Good thing I had some savings.

BUT—my next book was Huntress Moon, a real breakthrough in my writing. It was the book and series I was meant to write. The Huntress series combines my political and social activism, my rage at the abuse of children and women and the plain fact that we are not yet as a society committed to ENDING that abuse, and my skill at working those issues into highly readable thrillers. Because I’ve written this series, I honestly could die right now and feel that I’d fulfilled one crucial thing I was meant to do on this planet.

So my putting that other book away? I don't think that's a coincidence. I think my creative mind and the Universe understood that I was finally ready to do more, mean more, with my writing.

So I beg you all, just as I am begging my workshop students. If you haven't finished the book you're on, DON'T start a new book for Junowrimo, or Nanowrimo, or the New Year, just because.

Commit to the book you're already writing, in whatever stage of the process you're at, and finish THAT one.

And then go get published.

- Alex

(This week I heard from a good friend, a fabulous director and writing professor, who says she passed this post of mine on to a student of hers - who took the advice, FINISHED her book, and just landed an agent! Just saying....)

                                         STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 


Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)


Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:

                Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

My Thriller Award-nominated Huntress/FBI Thrillers is ON SALE for $2.00 each. 

A haunted FBI agent is on the hunt for a female serial killer.
This time, the predators lose.